What’s up top counts


Went to a reunion of the three sisters over the holidays in Plano. As we drove places, I rudely kept remarking about the amount of rooftops. The mountaintops of shingles jut over the high privacy fences abutting most thoroughfares, one after another, all looking the same and periodically punctuated by strip retail on corners that all look the same as well.

Roofing must be less expensive than masonry because it appears the second floors were mainly shingled surfaces. After the violent hailstorms this past year, I would think a company such as USAA would offer major insurance rate discounts for the reverse.

Perhaps the rooftops were so noticeable to me because new subdivisions lack mature trees to break up the sea of roofs. How in the world can Santa tell the houses apart?

My observations of this unwelcome repetition is not meant as a criticism of Plano. It applies equally to the unimaginative architecture in developments ringing all major cities and every growing community in Texas.

Of course, I certainly would not want to see our flat rooftop replicated throughout a neighborhood. We live in a loft reclaimed from a small inartistic factory, but it is tucked in the middle of a rooftop-rich neighborhood. I’m spoiled by the total lack of cookie-cutter uniformity in the King William Historic District.

I snapped a few photos the other morning of views you would see if privacy fences ringed these structures. Fortunately, the facades are not blocked by fences, but I wanted to focus on rooftops. With the pecans and oak trees standing naked, this is one of the few seasons you can see most of these. Retaining their leaves, live oaks conceal some rooflines. As much as I wanted to include treetops silhouetted against the blue sky, I decapitated most of the palms to concentrate on what is on top of the structures.

The diverse attention paid to the design of roofs and their underpinnings is not restricted to Victorian mansions; builders of modest cottages demonstrated elevated aesthetic concerns as well.

So sorry I did not pass by my favorite onion-top roof, but knew I already had taken way more photos than necessary to make my point. Neighborhoods are more interesting when attention is paid to individualizing architectural design, and adding jewels to the crowns of buildings makes a walkable neighborhood even more so.

Apologies to my sister in Plano for my rooftop criticism, but I’m totally spoiled. What’s up top matters a lot to both Santa and me.

Postcard from Bologna, Italy: Trying to untangle a towering perspective challenge


Went to a talk this weekend in San Antonio at Blue Star Contemporary given by photographer Robert Langham, III, whose works are featured in “Hold Still.” The topic was “How to revolutionize your camera work,” and that was what I wanted to do. In one easy lesson, of course.

Langham focused on six things critical to photographic composition. He explained these clearly. But, as my version was 30 minutes instead of the full semester version of his course, I’m not sure he managed to truly revolutionize my awkward efforts to capture our travels.

But, attempting to apply the critical points from the lecture, I returned to the photos we took of the two most famous towers in Bologna. Bear in mind, these images are all of the same two towers. Which one should make it to the blog? Should the church behind be visible? Do we need to people the photo for perspective? Should signage be there to emphasize the contemporary urban intrusions?

The most straightforward shot of the taller of the two, Torre degli Asinelli, surely was taken by the Mister. I have issues with straightforward framing of my subjects because I don’t seem to look at things squarely. I want to stand at the bottom of a tower and capture the dizzying height I see when looking upward. That angled perspective rarely works for others.

Of course, this pair of medieval towers makes that even more of a challenge because they themselves do not stand up straight. They lean, possibly even more than their cousin in Pisa.

The Asinelli Tower soars 330 feet upward, and visitors still can climb up its claustrophobic stairwell to enjoy views of Bologna. I stayed with feet planted firmly at street level. The Garisenda Tower tilts more than twice as much as its taller neighbor. This shorter tower – 167 feet – used to be the taller of the two, but it was decapitated back in the 14th century for obvious safety reasons.

From a perspective point of view as captured by our camera, it’s hard to believe these photos are all of the same two towers. The Mister actually managed to take a photo showing both that makes them look as though they both still stand perfectly upright – correcting centuries of sinking.

I think I need the full semester version to even begin to attempt to understand the photographic challenges presented by these two towers.

View some of Langham’s fine black and white images for his current project, “100 Tylerites,” on his blog. Wonderful lessons in portraiture.

Postcard from Bologna, Italy: The ornate resting place of Saint Dominic

Saint Dominic's Chapel

Saint Dominic (1170-1221) was born and educated in Spain, with extensive studies in theology and the arts. During a famine in 1191, he sold all of his belongings to purchase food for the poor.

The Dominican Order he founded was based on strict discipline and prayer and embraced an austere lifestyle, contrasting with the opulence favored by many priests of his day. The bald pate in the tonsure haircut Saint Dominic favored demonstrated his humility, and he removed his sandals to enter towns where he was preaching barefoot. Some believe he originated the saying of the Rosary following a vision of the Virgin Mary to aid in the conversion of heretics.

Even when exhausted and dying in Bologna, Saint Dominic refused a bed, insisting as always in sleeping on the floor. He was buried in the floor of the convent, but, following his canonization in 1234, there were those who dreamed of a more grandiose resting place appropriate for a saint.

Saint Dominic’s new sarcophagus is ringed with sculptural depictions of his life carved by Nicola Pisano in 1267. Two centuries later this arc was crowned by a new tier of sculpture crafted by Niccolo da Bari, attaining such notoriety for the artist he became known as Niccolo dell Arca. Among other artists later adding additional ornamentation to the saint’s final resting place was Michelangelo.

The Basilica of San Domenico is no humble resting place but an exuberant celebration of the religious arts.